In Israel, the customer is not always right

Israelis' insistence on not being a freier (sucker) has resulted in a reputation for poor customer service nationwide.

 CHAOS AT the Israel Post is a national, rueful joke. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
CHAOS AT the Israel Post is a national, rueful joke.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

A few years ago an interior designer bought six upholstered wooden dining-room chairs from a reputable Israeli vendor for her client. When the chairs were delivered, she noticed that the wooden legs were badly scratched, and the chairs were wobbly. She asked the vendor to take them back as they were damaged. The manager insisted that the scratches were the natural grain in the wooden legs and that the chairs were perfectly fine.

There was no arguing with the store manager. He had spoken – and the designer was stuck with defective merchandise, plus she had to finesse the situation with her clients. The store manager refused to take responsibility for the shoddy merchandise. And the interior designer vowed to never shop at the store again – not just for this client, but for the 50 or 60 clients she worked with every year.

Marvin Fine, a former entrepreneur and start-up inventor who came to Israel 13 years ago from Toronto, explains that Israeli companies have a one-way supply chain. In Israel, things are imported on demand, often with money upfront.

Israel has a one-way supply chain and the cards are against customers

“The market in Israel is like living on an island,” says Fine.

“Where are you going to go to buy? Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus? There is no supply chain. The retailer has no place to send goods back. He probably should have written a contract and said it was sold “as is.” It violates all the norms of consumer protection. But the government doesn’t enforce consumer protection in Israel.”

 ‘THERE IS no supply chain.’  (credit: FLASH90)
‘THERE IS no supply chain.’ (credit: FLASH90)

Lisa spent tens of thousands of shekels to have cabinets and closets custom-created for her apartment. But when she tried to contact the sales representative from the closet company after installation to purchase just one additional shelf for her unit, he ghosted her. Lisa guessed he felt that putting together an order for just one shelf was somehow not worth his time or energy. Her emails, WhatsApp and phone calls were completely ignored.

“The difference between Westerners and Israelis is that Westerners expect customer service,” Fine adds. 

“Businesses in America that don’t have consumer loyalty have no business. If they don’t cultivate consumer loyalty, they won’t succeed.”

You don’t have to go further than the post office to see a broken customer service system in effect in Israel. Navigating built-in siesta (“bankers’”) hours, an American customer shared that she tried to send an express-mail letter and had already paid when she realized that she couldn’t send express mail to a post-office box, the letter’s destination. When she tried to rescind the NIS 100 letter, the post office owner/manager told her there was no way to void the transaction. Like it or not, this letter was going express mail. The customer described a tearful tug of war over her very important letter. No apologies came from the woman who ran the doar (post office). She went on to the next customer with a shrug, mumbling something under her breath in Hebrew about stupid Americans.

Many years ago, I attended a customer service program offered by Stew Leonard’s, a magnificent chain of stores in New York and Connecticut that was a veritable Disneyland of supermarkets. With a petting zoo out front and robotic singing fruits, vegetables, and musical milk cartons inside, the song they sang was, “The Customer Is Always Right.” 

That branding drove the success of these stores, which still thrive, although the founder recently died, and it was what they taught the attendees at the programs they operated. Large businesses came from all over the world to train their customer service staff at Stew Leonard’s.

Could the Stew Leonard philosophy work here in Israel?

Why "The Customer Is Always Right" doesn't apply to Israel

“THE CUSTOMER is not always right,” says Doron Pryluk, senior vice president of customer experience at, who also teaches customer experience and success at and at the Reichman University in Herzliya.

He gives an example: “You are in a call center; you get a phone call – and there is something wrong.  An order has been ‘delayed.’ Everything is working as it was supposed to, but the customer needs the order now and was expecting it to arrive sooner. But they were notified that the item would be delivered in 10 business days, and it is just Day 7.”

“Is the customer right?” asks Pryluk. 

“No. But the call center must make the experience satisfying for the customer. The bottom line is that the customer service representative must find the best solution to create a resolution for the customer. There are a lot of techniques to turn around situations like that. You can still end the conversation on a good note and leave the customer delighted, without them necessarily being right.”

While Israeli businesses that are global and reach out beyond Israel are becoming more customer-oriented, many small domestic businesses retain a reputation for not caring to satisfy their customers.

“Every negotiation is win or lose. The louder I am, the more likely it is people will listen to me. While everyone anywhere may have problems with consumer goods, everywhere else there are rules. In Israel, the squeaky wheel gets oiled. When you call customer service, you must ask to talk to the manager. And because everybody is loud, you have to be louder.”

Osman Lautman Mansoor

Do Israel's domestic businesses not care about satisfying their customers?

Cross-cultural consultant Osnat Lautman Mansoor, author of Israeli Business Culture, helps others understand the nature of Israelis in order to build successful business relationships with them. She also works with Israelis to help them achieve a global mindset in their business outreach. 

A former flight attendant, Mansoor lived in Hoboken, NJ for four years and studied and worked there. She became fascinated by cross-cultural communication while trying to collaborate and work in the US. She came up with a bacronym for Israeli business behavior – Informal, Straightforward, Risk-Taking, Ambitious, Entrepreneurial, Loud and Improvisational – on the surface all positive values. 

But, she says, the “Loud” also stands for the somewhat aggressive manner that can be off-putting to those used to Western cultures, which are, by nature, more subdued.

“In Israel, everything is intense,” says Mansoor. 

 DORON PRYLUK teaches customer service 101. (credit: ROI EDUT)
DORON PRYLUK teaches customer service 101. (credit: ROI EDUT)

“Every negotiation is win or lose. The louder I am, the more likely it is people will listen to me. While everyone anywhere may have problems with consumer goods, everywhere else there are rules. In Israel, the squeaky wheel gets oiled. When you call customer service, you must ask to talk to the manager. And because everybody is loud, you have to be louder.”

In Israel, according to Mansoor, because so many people are innovating and thinking outside the box, people tend to be more suspicious. At McDonald’s, she said, in other countries, they ask what size drink you would like – small, medium, or large, and then they give you a cup. In Israel, that could never work. People would ask for small and refill it. Mansoor says its not that they are dishonest, it’s that nobody wants to be a freier (“sucker”). 

In Israel, she explains, a rule is just a guideline, and they expect to improvise to make it quicker, faster, better. But from a customer service perspective, it’s a whole different standpoint.

Mansoor describes a story she shares in her book.

“In America, we had horrible weather and the flight was canceled from NY,” she recalls, so she asked the gate agent “if there was a place I could drive to where I could catch a flight.”

Mansoor was trying to create an informal, improvisational solution outside the box to solve her problem.

“I was thinking outside the box,” she explained. “But the attitude from the American was: ‘Why drive anywhere when you can fly?’”

Likewise, Fine shared that a mechanic he knew got fired because he used to come up with creative solutions to fix cars. He had been troubleshooting because he was used to fixing tanks in the IDF.

“In Israel [if] he doesn’t have the part, what’s he going to do? Tell the guy: ‘Your car will be offline for several months’? Instead, he finds a solution. Improvise and retrofit,” says Fine. 

But the mechanic’s improvisational retrofitting got him fired. An American mechanic looks up the part, calls the parts company, gets the part, and installs it in the car.

Mansoor says it is challenging working with Israelis, who are used to noise, traffic and protests, In Israel people have less patience to deal with niceties and formalities.

Is Israeli customer service poor or are Israeli customers just obnoxious, loud, and demanding?

She also suggests that Israeli customer service may well have to do with the Israeli customer. 

“Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” she asks. 

“Are the customers not receiving good service because they are loud, obnoxious and demanding? Or is the customer service poor and therefore the customers become loud, obnoxious, and demanding.”

Flair Gefen, owner of Ice & Cream, an ice-cream-and-sweets shop in the Karnei Shomron mall, was born in Israel but lived in the US from age eight, until she returned to Israel at age 21. 

She recalls that the second she landed in Israel she realized that customer service was radically different.

Being a shop owner, Gefen chalks some customer attitudes up to the Israeli mentality, which she said she is still not used to. She remembers one customer buying a popsicle, asking for a plate, spoon, cup and napkin – then asking her why the treat was so expensive. 

Customers have even asked her the wholesale price of a NIS 27 unlimited-topping bagel-toast she sells – and have demanded to know her profit margin; even asking why she makes so much profit on it.

“If they are spending a shekel, they want to know just how much they are getting for that shekel,” she says.

When a customer who bought ice creams, one to eat and two to take home, walked around in the hot sun and then brought the melted uneaten ice creams back to the store to exchange for new ones. Of course, she had to say, “No.”

And still, having herself fallen victim to unscrupulous shop owners, the divorced mom of four says she appreciates all her customers, even the challenging ones and she gives them all a smile and a happy greeting.

“In the States, the price of an item doesn’t change if you are a resident versus a tourist,” she explains.

“Shortly after I moved back to Israel, I went with a friend to Tel Aviv and we enjoyed a day at the beach. We stopped by a kiosk to buy a piece of licorice. When the shop owner heard my friend and I speaking in English he charged me NIS 9 for that one piece of candy. At the time I didn’t even realize he had overcharged me. I later found the same candy for a ½ shekel elsewhere and I was mad!”

Her customers are mostly children, and she opened the store to give the youth a place to hang out. Gefen teaches her 11-year-old daughter, who frequently helps mind the store, to always make the customers feel the way she would like to feel when she goes out to eat. Give them the extra tomato in their toast or some extra topping on their Belgian waffle. Make the store a happy place to visit and a place they will want as their hangout.

 OSNAT MANSOOR with her book, ‘Israeli Business Culture.’ (credit: AYA SEGEV)
OSNAT MANSOOR with her book, ‘Israeli Business Culture.’ (credit: AYA SEGEV)

“Israelis are extreme,” says Mansoor. 

“Communication is very direct; we get into someone else’s personal space. Loudness, audacity and non-verbal communication rule here. The combination is much more aggressive and direct. If you are being polite you will be passed over.”

She says retailers might fear that because many Israelis have no boundaries, the minute you bend on a customer return, you will get 10 more.

In contrast, says Mansoor, “Americans have more rules, are more task oriented; more documents; everything is clear and the language is downgraded – If an American or Brit says, ‘I’m a bit disappointed,’ it could mean that you’re going to get fired.”

Building customer loyalty in Israel

With all that, is it harder to build customer loyalty in Israel?

She says from a business owners’ standpoint, they may be wondering, “If I invest in consumer loyalty, will the customers appreciate it, or will they use it against me?”

JOSH HAUSER, CMO of Technolite, a family-owned-and-operated business known in the design industry for excellent service, says the company works hard to keep its customers happy. What started as a business-to-business company now sells direct to the consumer, but they service everyone from architects, interior designers, electricians and consumers who have questions, need input and have to troubleshoot product installations.

“When you care about your architect or designer, you will make them happy,” explains Hauser, one of five siblings who manages the company that his father David Hauser founded 30 years ago.

“And they should know that when there is an issue, we will always stand behind our product,” he says.

“We don’t only care about the company and the brand. We care about the products, customers, and the workers. We live it. We care about it just as we would our own home. We work very hard at each point of the customers’ journey, from planning to delivery, to installation. A lot of thought and effort goes into keeping all our customers happy.”

He says while there is no black-and-white process with customer service, the company provides videos, live chats and phone calls from tech support to look at the products and troubleshoot. 

“We send out parts if needed.”

Pryluk, who works with international tech companies that were founded by Israelis, says when the companies’ vast majority of customer base is North American, they are very customer-centric.

He shared that, according to North Highland data, 87% of managers in the US and the UK define customer experience as their number one strategic effort.

The customer experience is key to the customer: 88% of consumers say the customer experience is as important as the product or services a company provides, and almost all customers surveyed responded that good customer service builds trust; 66% of customers stopped buying from companies whose world of values don’t match their own.

He teaches that knowing your customers begins even before a start-up’s planning.

“Before things are charts and timelines – with the inception of the idea, companies must understand the customer’s needs. When they are still planning their product and its features, they must consider the customer and understand the emotions of their customers at every stage of the process,” Pryluk says.

Israeli start-ups: Changing Israeli attitudes on customer service

ISRAELI START-UPS are changing Israel’s attitudes towards customer service. As a global entity, Amazon is a good example of a company that is customer-centric and the attention to customer-centricity extends to the Israeli arm of the company, he says.

Jeff Bezos at Amazon used to leave an extra chair at every internal meeting to include customers in the business decisions,” he points out.

“Even in Israel Amazon practices customer centricity. They only work with a select number of delivery services. Amazon holds their delivery service and return policies to a very high standard and will even drop shippers if people complain.”

Pryluk, who went to Ohio State University, says he enjoyed the customer service ethic in North America. When he returned to Israel after university, he was shocked by the lack of politeness in our very different culture.

“Sales 101 in North America has been instilled in the culture for decades,” he explains.

Although “we dont have the Amazon Prime standard here,” he says, “Israel is slowly starting to adapt to this, and we are seeing more companies adapt.”

He says that customer mapping – knowing your customer – is something that any manager and anyone working in any organization must have, and this knowledge is now influencing the overall Israeli customer service attitude.

Pryluk points out that TerminalX, the online shopping site owned by the Fox Group is a good example of customer service done right, with next-day shipping, and easy returns – like Amazon Prime.

“If you want to compete, this is the standard of service you need to compete with.”

ALAN SILVER is a small business owner in Tel Stone. He arrived in Israel from Johannesburg 30 years ago and set up Kol Bo Alan where he sells keyboards, computer equipment, chargers, houseware, small appliances, photocopy services, cables and Rav Kav (public transport card) refills.

“My shop opens at 9 in the morning and stays open until the last customer leaves, sometimes as late as 9 pm and we are one of the few such shops open on motzei shabbos [Saturday night, after Shabbat], often until 11 pm,” he says. 

“I open to service my customers. My life runs according to Torah principles. Veahavta lere’echa kamocha (“Love your neighbor as yourself.”). I treat others as I would like to be treated.”

He thinks businesses, especially small ones, go wrong when their owners think only of themselves and their bottom line. People fail when they exist only for themselves, the money and the “now” component of doing business. They think that the customer needs the business more than the business needs the customers. And that is not right.

“All they see is dollar signs,” he explains.

By contrast, he said he davens (“prays”) every morning and when he davens for parnassah, (“sustenance”), he sees each customer that comes into his store as an emissary “sent by Hashem.”

“How are you supposed to treat a representative from Hashem?” he explains.

“Every half shekel is appreciated. I take customer credit cards – with no minimums – and if someone needs a return, I honor it by asking if the customer would buy it in this condition. I let them be the judge.”

Silver says providing service to his customer base gives him enormous satisfaction because he has tremendous love for people, and he enjoys making them happy.

The good news is that there are shop owners like Silver and Gefen and companies like Technolite who are eager to provide good customer service here in Israel. And the better news is that the more global Israel becomes in its business outreach to Europe and Western countries, the better our customer service likely to get. 